A Report of Starbucks' Workers Protest During RNC

- by Mike Schwartz

During the week of the Republican Convention, New York City arrested over 1,800 protestors who dared to believe that the First Amendment is for real; that.s three times as many arrests as Chicago had back in '68. The courts were overwhelmed, Bloomberg set up a Guantanamo on the Hudson., and eventually a judge had to fine the city hundreds of thousands of dollars just to ensure the right of habeas corpus. At times it seemed like we were living in the shadow of a dictatorship.

Tens of millions of people watched and listened to Zel Miller, the GOP, and Bush foam at the mouth about the ever lasting freedom of America while defending the slaughter of tens of thousands across the globe. Simultaneously the real America was out in the streets where hundreds of thousands of people were singing about, marching for, and demanding a more humane world. Among the numerous protests took place in the backdrop of the convention was a small demonstration at a Starbucks on the corner of 36th and Madison, which went by relatively unnoticed but was undoubtedly one of the most important to occur.

Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the story of the heroic Starbucks workers of 36th and Madison who have voted to align themselves with the Industrial Workers of the World. If they are successful in their struggle they will be the first unionized Starbucks workers in America. Organizing drives can be contagious and Starbucks is well aware that after this one store on 36th and Madison, there are 4,499 other stores that might also go union. Starbucks will do almost anything to try and derail this process. But, on the other side, we can do a lot to help them; for more information on the campaign you can read Derek Seidman's excellent article .Starbucks Workers Get Organized. (http://www.counterpunch.org/seidman08262004.html).

Although their numbers are small these workers quickly drew the attention of both the Bush administration and Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz (2003 income: $17 million). The National Labor Relations Board voted 3-2 to hear the appeal of Starbucks that one store should not have the right to go union; instead an entire district must go union at once. This flies in the face of decades of established labor law but what does that matter? Instead of rolling over, the Baristas at the 36th Street store have decided to turn to direct action to win union recognition.

So, early in the afternoon of August 28th, we set out to protest the unabashed union busting of Starbucks and the Bush administration. The demonstration started at the Starbucks on 36th street. After hearing a speech by Daniel Gross, a worker at the store who is also the main union organizer, we proceeded to march to Starbucks headquarters a few blocks away.

The demonstrators numbered about 200 and as we walked through the streets of midtown and passed the Empire State Building we were met with cheers and thumbs up signs by tourists as well as other New Yorkers. Looking up at the skyscraper that houses the millionaire heads of Starbucks we chanted slogans like "What's disgusting? Union Busting! What's outrageous? Starbucks wages!" After a few more minutes of chanting and speeches we decided to go back to the original store.

Our march was followed by a group of undercover cops on motorcycles who looked like they belonged in a bad biker movie (one wore a sticker on his helmet which read "loud wives lose lives." As we got close to the store the police informed us we would not be allowed in front of the store. After some negotiating they agreed but split the group so half of us were facing north.south and the other half were facing east-west. This left a space on the corner of the sidewalk in between us occupied by police officers.

It was here that things turned very Orwellian. A captain came over to Daniel and asked if there was anywhere else we planned on marching. Daniel responded that he did not know yet. A couple of minutes later it was decided that we would have one last chant before calling it a day. Daniel asked me to help coordinate between the two sections of the march and I agreed. We were both standing on the space on the corner of the sidewalk trying to organize a chant when out of nowhere Daniel was grabbed by a high ranking officer. The officer dragged him into the street while saying "you were warned;" of what, neither I, nor Daniel, have any idea.

The officer arrested Daniel while the other protestors and myself, were left unmolested and speechless (even though I was standing right next to Daniel, and one could assume that whatever he was guilty of, so was I). As the unified voices yelled "Let him go," the police zeroed in on one other protestor; Anthony Polanco, who just happens to be the other main organizer in the campaign. With both union organizers arrested the police got on a megaphone and told the rest of us "you are free to go.. .Free to go.? Two hundred people on a sidewalk in Midtown, that is the normality in this city, but suddenly it was a threat to the peace. Suddenly, "free to go" turned into "you'll" be arrested if you don't," which did a lot more to lighten the numbers.

This was no small occurrence. Two union organizers were arrested at a peaceful union rally. Daniel was arrested for doing nothing more than standing on the sidewalk, while Anthony's crime was speaking out to defend his comrade. Anthony was initially charged with three misdemeanors: obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. Two of these charges with subsequently dropped leaving him with the disorderly conduct. charge, which itself was reduced to a violation. Translation: He keeps his nose clean for six months and everything is fine.

Daniel Gross, however, is having the book thrown at him. He was charged with two misdemeanors; disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. They are refusing to drop or lower either one of the charges and his .plea bargain. includes one week of jail time. First of all, I witnessed the entire exchange and I can tell you that he was in no way guilty of either one of these offences and this is something I will testify to in court if the time comes. But that is secondary to the real issue; which is that they want to use him as an example against those that would take similar actions. The District Attorney is openly aiding the union busting tactics of Starbucks and the Bush administration and Daniel needs our help. This is about our basic right to organize a union. We have to say loud and clear to the New York District Attorney's office: Drop all charges against Daniel Gross now!

In times like these we have to remember the words of Joe Hill: "Don't get mad. Organize!" Barbara Thompson is the director of the Manhattan DA.s communication office; (212) 335-9400. Starbucks. CEO Howard Shultz.s e-mail is hschultz@starbucks.org. The union's website is www.starbucksunion.org; log on and see what you can do to help. We can start there.

Mike Schwartz, 25, is a high school teacher in Brooklyn. He welcomes your comments at mikeschwartz2004@yahoo.com

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